Though it may be frightening, mis amigos, change is life

October 21, 2007|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

"La gente dice que Earl Stewart lo hizo solo por el poderoso dolar." (People say Earl Stewart did it only for the almighty dollar.)

"El dice que tienen razon." (He says they're right.)

What's that? The subtitles are distracting? Fine, I'll stop.

But the point here is, all Mr. Stewart wanted to do was sell Toyotas. It's something he's been doing for 33 years as the proprietor of Earl Stewart Toyota in Palm Beach County, Fla. Then he hit upon an idea he thought might expand his market: Spanish-language commercials with English subtitles. The spots run on English-language television and, though he speaks no Spanish, Mr. Stewart stars in them himself.

The subtitles, he says, were an afterthought. "I said, `You know, I'm going to be talking to a lot of people that don't speak Spanish so as a courtesy or to explain what I'm doing, maybe I should use English subtitles.' It was really an effort on my part, albeit a failure, to be nice to the monolingual folks."

The "monolingual folks" were not feeling the love, putting it mildly. Mr. Stewart says the commercial brought him a "flood" of angry, often profane, e-mails and phone calls, nine out of every 10 sharply critical of his commercial. As described by Mr. Stewart, the complaints tended to be longer on emotion than on logic. For instance, they said that by advertising in Spanish, he encouraged Spanish-speakers to avoid learning English. But he was advertising on English stations, so anyone watching presumably already spoke the language.

And people kept referencing Mexico, usually in sentences that began with, "Why don't you go back to ..." But anybody who knows South Florida knows that while it is home to many Spanish-speakers, the bulk of them are not Mexican.

"I think there's a lot of fear out there," says Mr. Stewart. "All of the [presidential] candidates to some extent are using the immigration thing as a lever to get elected. They're appealing to the fear Americans have, some of this 9/11 stuff. And the rhetoric has a lot of the people who are not as informed or maybe don't listen carefully convinced that most of the Spanish people in this country are illegal immigrants or they're terrorists."

It's a cogent analysis, but I think there's more going on here. One suspects that, at bottom, what set Mr. Stewart's critics off is a fear so visceral they might not even have words to express it. Put simply: Since when do we need subtitles in our own country?

To which the best answer is probably: Who is "we"? What is "our"? The fact is, "we" is not what it used to be and "our" reflects a nation more diverse than ever before. The Census Bureau says the Hispanic population of Palm Beach County stands at 16.7 percent. Isn't it smart business to reach out to them? Why begrudge Mr. Stewart's efforts to do so?

Granted, it's not hard to empathize with the sense of dislocation some people feel as they watch the nation changing around them. But to understand what they feel is not necessarily to share it.

In the first place, hysterical predictions to the contrary notwithstanding, it's exceedingly unlikely English is in danger of losing its position of primacy. In the second place, people will sooner or later have to understand that while change is frightening, change is also life, especially in a nation as susceptible as this one to the forces of the free market. Which is, for my money, the moral of Mr. Stewart's story.

He says that as that story has become better known, the public response has done a 180-degree turnabout. The commercial - and the notoriety - have brought customers from as far away as Miami. And he's just had his best September ever. All of which leaves Mr. Stewart with mixed emotions. He's disappointed in many of his fellow Americans.On the other hand, business is good.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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